While not the official midway point through the season, the allstar break certainly serves as the unofficial midway point in the long, 162-game season that is major league baseball. I thought it would be fitting to take advantage of the allstar break to prepare a report card of sorts and break down the different aspects of the Blue Jays organization. This is part one of the series: The Starting Rotation.
Going into Spring Training, the rotation was much discussed as one of the strongest in baseball – on paper. Leading the pack was last year’s NL Cy Young award winner, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Dickey only seemed to get better in his first three seasons in the show as a knuckler and there was no reason to doubt the trend wouldn’t continue. To follow Dickey, the Jays had Brandon Morrow – a hard throwing righty soaring with potential. In 2012 he ended the season with a sub-3.00 ERA and was thought to be a dark horse for the AL Cy Young in 2013 if he was able to stay healthy and throw at least 200 innings. Then we have the ever-consistent, Mark Buehrle. With a decade of at least 10 wins and 200 innings, the Jays knew what they were getting. The number 4 on the squad – likely a number 1 or 2 in most rotations – Josh Johnson. And in a contract year. Many felt Johnson might just end 2013 with the best numbers in this rotation – even with all the depth. At number 5 to round things out, the Jays were going to turn to its opening day starter the previous two seasons – Ricky Romero. Sure, the lefty struggled mightily for 3/4 of the 2012 season, but prior to that he had gotten better every year, pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA in 2011, and had great success in the AL East. J.A. Happ was the insurance policy. Happ? An insurance policy? He could be a number 4 on most teams! The rotation was a lock to carry the load and limit the innings of a perceived weak bullpen.
Fast forward to present: The 6 starters above have a total of just 18 wins in the first 94 games. The team has just 45 total wins (meaning 27 wins have come from pitchers outside the ‘group of 6’) and the team ERA ranks 10th of 15 in the AL at 4.22. Take away the bullpen ERA, you ask? The Jays starters has pitched to a whopping 5.07 ERA – 29th of 30 teams in the MLB. Only the lowly Twins are worse. So what the hell happened? What went so horribly wrong? Well, injuries for one thing. The Jays have already used 13 different starters this year. No team in the MLB has that sort of starting depth. But also the guys that haven’t hit the DL haven’t pitched up to par. Let’s take a look at each of the 13 starters for the team and evaluate.
R.A. Dickey (128.2 IP, 8-10 record, 4.69 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 93 K’s) – Dickey struggled out of the gate and has been inconsistent all year long. He’s early struggles were blamed on a minor injury he was pitching through. He had tightness in his back and neck which caused a drop in velocity and therefore a loss of control. For instance, last season Dickey issued 54 walks. This year he has already issued 47. Because he lacked velocity, he was forced to abandon his vintage 78 – 82 mph knuckler and focus on a 68 – 71 mph variety (just a tad harder than Tim Wakefield threw). The slower knuckler and lack of control mean two things – 1) when Dickey gets behind in the count, he turns to a low-80s fastball that pretty much looks like batting practice if a batter is ready for it, and 2) while a slower knuckler is harder to control because it has more break (which leads to hitters counts where hitters look for bp fastballs), when it does flatten out it’s much easier to crush. Dickey gave up 24 homers last year. This year? 20 already. With the back and neck issues behind him, Dickey has been pitching better, albeit still inconsistent, of late. In his last 10 starts, he has allowed 36 earned runs of which 31 came in 5 starts. It seems like he has been awesome or awful with no middle ground. I find it hard to believe that the 616.2 innings Dickey threw in the prior 3 seasons were a fluke. With the minor injuries behind him and his velocity back, I look for him to have a solid second half and dominate with the best of them.
Mark Buehrle (116.0 IP, 5-6 record, 4.89 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 77 K’s) – Buehrle was absolutely awful in April and it has severely skewed his overall numbers. Over his last 10 games, he has pitched to a respectable 3.63 ERA – this includes a 8 earned runs outing in his final start before the break. Buehrle’s trouble this year has been avoiding the longball. He’s actually on pace to give up close to his average in homers per season and HR/9, but this season it seems like he’s either giving up 3 per game or none at all. Look for Buehrle’s home run numbers to even out a bit in the second half and for him to continue his decade long streak of at least 10 wins and 200 innings.
Esmil Rogers (71.2 IP, 3-4 record, 3.64 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 49 K’s) – While Rogers started the season in the bullpen and only came into the rotation due to injuries (his performance in the ‘pen certainly didn’t warrant a look as a starter), he looks very comfortable in the rotation with a new-found sinker. His secondary stuff is probably below average, but he has the ability to throw his curveball for strikes which has been keeping hitters off balance. When his sinker is on, he has looked nearly untouchable. Where he can get into trouble is when he opens his front shoulder early in his delivery which causes his throwing arm to drag – which causes his sinker to flatten out. If he can learn to more consistently repeat his delivery, he should have no problem maintain a rotation spot when both Happ and Morrow return from the DL. His sinker is that good.
J.A. Happ (33.0 IP, 2-2 record, 4.91 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 26 K’s) – Happ’s season has included a lengthy DL stint thanks to a frightening ball to the head and a sprained knee during his fall to the ground. Prior to the injuries, Happ pitched 7 games and gave the Jays pretty much what you would expect. When Happ attacks hitters and keeps his pitch count down, he is tough to beat. His issue is when he gets behind and tries to nibble the corners of the plate too much. When behind he either ends up throwing down the middle (which leads to hits) or pitching around certain batters (which leads to walks). A 1.55 WHIP is too high for a starter hoping to have success and higher than his career 1.40 mark, but it was only 7 games and a small sample size. I like Happ as a number 4 or 5 guy in a rotation and I’m happy that liner off his head didn’t result in a more serious injury. Happ is scheduled to be back early August and, at the moment, looks to replace Todd Redmond in the rotation.
Brandon Morrow (54.1 IP, 2-3 record, 5.63 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 42 K’s) – Morrow’s season has been a complete bust thus far and once again the high-potential righty finds himself on the DL. After posting a career-best 2.96 ERA in 21 starts last season, Morrow – for some crazy reason – decided to change what he was doing and develop a cutter. He started using it in Spring Training and made only 10 starts before hitting the DL with right forearm soreness. This is one of the biggest “if it ain’t broke, then go out and change everything” moments that becomes a complete head scratcher for fans and scouts alike. Morrow also almost completely abandoned his curveball, which was such a huge change-of-pace pitch for him a year ago and perfectly complimented his hard fastball and slider. Fans can only hope that Morrow can finish his forgettable season strong – he’s due back mid-August from the DL barring any further setbacks. Hopefully when Morrow returns, he’s read this paragraph, dropped the cutter, and focuses on the deadly fastball, slider, curveball combination that made him so great last season (when healthy).
Chad Jenkins (15.0 IP, 1-0 record, 3.60 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 6 K’s) – Jenkins did the job filling in the rotation for 3 starts after only throwing 5 innings in double-A prior to his call-up. The sinker specialist is always going to give up hits, but he’s also likely to get double-play ground balls when he’s going well. I know his 3 starts were just a very small sample size and I understand that he has struggled since his demotion to triple-A and the fact that he projects to be a longman/spot starter with his stuff, but for a rotation seeking to fill holes having cycled through its vast handful of pitchers already this year, it’s makes a fan wonder why Jenkins was ever sent down after only 3 starts in the first place.
Josh Johnson (66.1 IP, 1-5 record, 5.16 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 67 K’s) – Arguably the biggest disappointment on the entire Jays roster this season, Johnson hasn’t lived up to the “ace contract-year” hype. Call me crazy, but I’d be looking to extend Johnson on a one-year deal with a club option right now. He’s too good of pitcher with too good of stuff to continue going this poorly. His value is arguably at a career low in a free-agent year. Johnson could be well served to sign a one year deal and try and improve his market value for 2015/16. If the Jays really believe they have a window to compete through the 2015 season, they should be trying to buy low on Johnson now. He has almost no trade value as a 2-month rental pitcher with the way he’s pitched this season. For a guy who has thrown more strikeouts than had hits allowed in his career and boasts a career 3.29 ERA, the Jays should try and lock this down. What’s one more year with a club option? If he still stinks next season, the Jays can dump him for nothing at next year’s deadline – because they aren’t going to get anything for him this year and I think he’ll shine in the second half.
Ramon Ortiz (25.1 IP, 1-2 record, 6.04 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, 8 K’s) – Everyone loves a feel-good story and for 2 starts this season, the Jays had one with 40-year-old comeback pitcher, Ortiz. Then reality set in. There is a reason he has bounced between the MLB and triple-A for the last 5 seasons – he just isn’t that great anymore. After 2 solid starts for the injury-ridden rotation, fans were calling it a great comeback. Then fans were quickly reminded that pitchers rarely, if ever, get better beyond their late 30s. Ortiz will always have a soft spot in my heart, though. When he shredded his elbow and winced in pain on the mound before throwing his glove in the dirt in disgust and beginning to cry, it was the first time in my life I witnessed a player recognize that, due to injury, he had just thrown his last major-league pitch. I’ll never forget that moment and the emotion I saw in his face. He is a warrior. Unfortunately, he’s not much of a pitcher at the MLB level anymore.
Todd Redmond (16.2 IP, 1-1 record, 4.32 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 14 K’s) – Redmond has pitched well in his 2 starts for the Jays (he also made 3 relief appearances). His sub-1.00 WHIP is very impressive and his ability to reach back for a big strikeout when needed has helped him out of some jams. But before anyone gets too excited, I’ll remind everyone that there is a reason Redmond was pitching in triple-A. There is a reason that his triple-A ERA is above 5.00 this season. There is a reason he has been a career minor leaguer. Redmond just isn’t that great. Although he has impressed in this very small sample size, the reality is that late-bloomers are rare and I highly doubt Redmond is one of them. Hopefully he can continue to hold his own until Happ makes his return in early August. If not, perhaps we give Jenkins or Chien-Ming Wang another go.
Chien-Ming Wang (24.0 IP, 1-1 record, 7.13 ERA, 1.83 WHIP, 11 K’s) – Wang, a fantastic low-risk signing by the Jays, pitched extremely well in his first 3 starts and extremely poorly in his last 2 before being demoted to triple-A. The former Yankee allstar and multiple 19-game winner has had arm issues that derailed his career. Through his first 3 games with the Jays, Wang pitched into the 7th inning each game to the tune of a 2.61 ERA. Then in his next 2 starts he couldn’t get through the 2nd inning and allowed 13 earned runs in 3.1 innings – sending his ERA to 7.13. Yet, I think the Jays were too quick to demote Wang. Granted that Redmond has pitched well in his two starts, but I still feel Wang gives the team a better chance to win. The 2 blowouts were vs. the Red Sox and the Tigers – 2 teams that have offences capable of sending any starter to the showers early. Since his demotion, Wang is 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 13 innings. I really like him as a back-of-the-rotation or depth pitcher. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him back with the team at some point this season if there are further injuries to the rotation.
Aaron Laffey (2.2 IP, 0-0 record, 6.75 ERA, 2.63 WHIP, 0 K’s) – Last season, Laffey stepped into the injury-plaqued rotation and did a decent job. This season the Jays picked him up off waivers hoping for more of the same. After one start where Laffey issued 5 walks and couldn’t get out of the 3rd inning, the Jays demoted and subsequently released him. Laffey hasn’t pitched another game in the majors since. Why he wouldn’t accept his minor-league assignment with the Jays organization is a bit of a head scratcher.
Sean Nolin (1.1 IP, 0-1 record, 40.50 ERA, 6.00 WHIP, 0 K’s) – I really hate when a club calls up a young kid, he has a bad first start in his major-league debut when he’s full of nerves, and then he is immediately sent back to the minors. That’s exactly what happened to Nolin and it’s a shame. Although he got hit around in his debut, he showed good stuff and continued to throw strikes. I would have liked to see him get at least 3 starts before sending him back down. Especially with so many rotation holes due to injuries. For what it’s worth, Nolin has gone 6-2 with a 2.09 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning in double-A this year – I think the kid is ready for the next step.
Ricky Romero (4.1 IP, 0-2 record, 12.46 ERA, 2.77 WHIP, 4 K’s) – Oh how the mighty have fallen…. Romero continues to work in triple-A after being called up too early by the Jays hoping he was ready to get back to the show. After being the opening day starter the previous two seasons and slated to be the number 5 going into 2013, Romero was cut towards the end of Spring Training and was told to re-work his mechanics with the goal of gaining better command of the strike zone. Fast forward and Romero a 2-3 record, a 5.56 ERA, and nearly a 1:1 BB/K ratio in triple-A. With an un-tradeable contract and limited signs of finding his former self, Romero’s fall from grace is absolutely mind blogging. The Jays are stuck with him so they might as well be patient and hope (and pray) that he can work through his control issues. Oh… and he has since abandoned the new mechanics in favour of the old ones since the new ones did nothing for him. I wish the best for Romero, but I’m not holding my breath.
So what does the rotation need to do to turn things around? They need to get and stay healthy and pitch to potential. That’s all. Easier said then done? Yes. Possible for the second half? Very.
Hope you enjoyed part one in the mid-season series. Stay tuned for more….
It’s been an eventful week for our beloved Blue Jays. Over the past week we’ve seen the following:
- Sean Nolin had a rough debut but in my opinion has good stuff
- Nolin got sent down following his start – wrong move in my opinion and the Jays leave glaring holes in the rotation
- R.A. Dickey got lit up by a potent Orioles offence and then the Braves – he sure isn’t pitching like an ace
- Munenori Kawasaki became a hero while Brett Lawrie became a villian during a walk off win
- Lawrie hit the DL with an ankle sprain
- Colby Rasmus got the better of his brother Cory in a rare pitcher/brother battle at the MLB level by ripping a double
- Brandon Morrow got pulled and is now day-to-day with a right forearm strain
- Casey Janssen’s shoulder kept him out of an extra inning game vs. the Braves and Ramon Ortiz and Thad Weber can’t hold the game
- Ortiz and Weber got sent down, Juan Perez, Neil Wagner, and Todd Redmond – Perez and Wagner back up Esmil Rogers first start sine 2011 to help shutout the Braves (Perez looked amazing)
With all that news, here are my thoughts:
- Don’t call up Nolin just to send him down after one bad outing. It’s worse for his confidence to go up and down than it is to stay up and try again. Especially with no Josh Johnson, an injured Morrow, and a combination of Chad Jenkins/Esmil Rogers plugging holes. If you call a kid up, give him a few starts. Drew Hutchison came up last season and didn’t fair well at first but good pitches make adjustments (and I believe Nolin is a good pitcher). The first three runs he surrendered in the 1st inning vs. the Orioles were due to a seeing eye single, a little bloop single, then a homer off a quality strike down and away. He pitched much better than his line showed – give the kid a chance to redeem himself. If he wasn’t ready for the majors, why call him up in the first place?
- The Jays need to figure out what is wrong with Dickey. I think it’s because of his tight neck and shoulder – the last couple years he consistently hit 80 mph with his knuckler and now it’s more often 74-75 mph. He doesn’t have nearly the control with it as evidence by his walk rate per inning pitched being double compared to his previous three seasons. Dickey needs to make the adjustment of not throwing as hard. Perhaps mixing in more slow knucklers at 60 – 65 mph to make the 75 mph look that much faster. Also, he needs to throw more first pitch fastballs. Opponents are almost always taking the first pitch. Why would you not take at least one strike vs. a knuckleballer?
- Dear Lawrie, you are not mature, you are not playing well, and you should never show up your teammates or coaches – especially on a potential sac fly for a run that means nothing. When you come back from the DL, just shut up, stop whining, and play good, quality baseball with a smile on your face. You’re attitude grew tiresome ages ago.
- Morrow, please don’t say you’re fine when you’re not fine. If you can’t pitch, don’t try. You just screw up the bullpen for the next three games. Enough with the bumped back starts. Just take a 15-day trip to the DL if you have to. With Johnson coming back, it’s the right time to do it if you need to.
- Janssen, I love ya buddy. But really, you felt that much better one day later and could pick up a 1-2-3 save? I would have taken your wonky shoulder over Weber’s third appearance in three days ANY day of the week. I mean, last week we were all saying “who is Thad Weber?” Just be ready to go when we need you. If you can’t pitch after a week off, maybe you should be on the DL also.
- Perez and Wagner – great numbers in triple-A (0.86 and 0.89 ERAs respectively). Keep it up. Maybe we won’t be such a revolving door in the ‘pen.
Final thought – Why not start Edwin Encarnacion at 3B and Adam Lind at 1B during inter-league play vs. righties? If you get a lead, make a defensive substitution. I know Edwin is pretty awful at 3B, but we need to score runs and Lind is leading our team in AVG and is second to only Jose Bautista in OBP. We need to have him in the game for more than one at bat. As a good friend of mine asked me, if Cito could start Paul Molitor at 3B during the ’93 world series in Atlanta, why can’t Gibbons start Edwin there on game 54 of the regular season?
How rusty will Brandon Morrow be when he pitches again for the Blue Jays? Will he avoid a trip to the DL? These are the questions fans have to be asking now that Morrow has been pushed back a third consecutive time due to neck/back spasms. While he was supposed to take the mound today to end the 2-game mini series vs. the Giants, the Jays are now hoping he can pitch this weekend on Saturday vs. the division leading Yankees.
Pros and cons – the Jays have a better chance winning with Morrow on the mound today and it would be nice to head to New York with 4 straight wins and a bit of momentum vs. the red hot Yankees. On the other hand, it will be nice having Morrow throw in the Yankee series assuming he’s not too rusty and is able to go.
Nothing against Ramon Ortiz, who will fill in for Morrow for the second straight time. He is the best internal option right now. But he is a triple-A depth player at this point in his career and the Jays bats will have to continue to produce should they hope to win tonight.
Even though the results have been there over the last three games, I can’t say I’m a fan of the new line up with everyone bumped up a slot (Melky Cabrera leading off, Jose Bautista second, Edwin Encarnacion third, etc.) I’d rather see Emilio Bonifacio lead off since he is starting to hit up and have the bulky bats hitting behind some obp and speed. That would mean starting Bonifacio on a regular basis – something I’ve been saying they need to do for weeks now.
With the rotation battered, yesterday and Thursday’s off days couldn’t have come at a better time. Let’s hope Morrow can go this weekend in New York and take a game from the Yanks.
One last comment – I hate that there is fan voting for allstar games but particularly hate how early it starts in baseball. However, if I have to be honest and say which Jay(s) are deserving of an allstar nod this year based on performance so far in 2013, there is only one guy I would send: Casey Janssen. He is 10 for 10 in save opportunities and boasts an incredible line: a 0.69 ERA, 0.31 WHIP, .093 opponents batting average to go along with zero walks and 13 K’s in 13 innings. Wow! Is there a better closer in the game this season?
So, the Blue Jays did what I hoped they would do at the very least – they finished 4-3 on their recent road trip despite a patched together rotation and being 1 hit by John Lester.
Surprise call up, Chad Jenkins, pitched well and got away with mistakes on Sunday to earn much needed win. By winning Sunday, the Jays won just their second series of the season. Yikes.
Jenkins is now 2-3 with a 4.38 ERA over 37 major league innings. With his outing vs. the Red Sox, he earned another start in my opinion, especially with Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ on the DL and R.A. Dickey and Brandon Morrow pitching with back and neck spasms.
That’s if Morrow pitches. The whole reason Jenkins got the unlikely call up from double-A (Jenkins had only 1 minor league start in the minors this year since he was recovery from a shoulder injury) was because Morrow was unable to go. Morrow originally scheduled to pitch last Friday but had his start bumped out due to back and neck spasms so Ramon Ortiz got the nod. Then on Sunday, Morrow still wasn’t ready so Jenkins got the call up (and took advantage by throwing strikes). Now the Jays are aiming for a Wednesday start from Morrow. My guess is if he misses it, he’ll land on the DL.
If Morrow is able to go Sunday, I actually like our chances to take the 2-game mini series (and 2-game mini home stand) vs. the Giants tomorrow and Wednesday. We have Dickey going tomorrow and hopefully Morrow Wednesday. When on either of these guys can steal a win. Also, it looks like the offence is starting to hit a bit. Forget the game vs. John Lester – he was just unhittable for any team that night – the Jays hitters are really seeing the ball right now and having good at bats.
Happy to see Emilio Bonifacio get a couple starts. We need to give him at bats and get him going. He has too much talent to sit on the bench 3 out of 4 games.
Casey Janssen – what can I say? He’s been the best closer in the American League so far this young season and the Jays only allstar in my opinion.
With our “win 90” count down, the Jays now have to go 75 – 48 in the remaining 123 games. That’s .610 ball. Not impossible, but certainly not easy (especially with the patched up rotation).
Let’s steal two from the Giants!
Ricky Romero looked awful last night. As a major league pitcher, you have to be able to throw the ball where you want to throw it was some consistency. Last night, poor Ricky couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.
It’s no surprise that Romero has been sent to triple-A after last night’s disaster. He was only able to record one out through the first seven batters and was quickly yanked. Some people are saying that John Gibbons was too quick to give Romero the hook last night. The ol’ “what does it do to his confidence” bit. Well, we are trying to win ball games. And Gibbons said it best. He has a responsibility to the other 24 guys on the team to try and win the game. When a pitcher can’t control where he is throwing the ball (I mean, Ricky wasn’t even close last night), a manager should have a quick hook.
So down goes Ricky, which leads to the question – was he brought up to fast in the first place? To me, the answer is definitely yes (and if you are a regular reader of my blogs, you’ll remember I thought it was too quick before Ricky threw a single pitch for the Blue Jays this season). But I guess the Jays thought Ricky was the best in-house solution to replace Josh Johnson and tried to rush him. They obviously thought wrong. But what does that say about the recent call ups. Are Mickey Storey or Ramon Ortiz suddenly better than Ricky Romero? Do they give the Jays a better shot at winning?
You wouldn’t think so, but maybe. Romero has lost 15 of his past 16 decisions dating back to 2012 and owns a 7.60 ERA over that span. Yikes!
Edgar Gonzalez was sent back down after throwing 4.2 innings of relief and giving up 5 runs. He was really only called up as an insurance policy in case Romero struggled to provide bullpen depth and eat some innings. Last night would have been Gonzalez’s regular turn in the triple-A rotation, so his arm was fresh. Now that it’s not fresh, he’ll have to clear waivers to once again pitch in Buffalo. I think he will – he always has once this year.
So up come Ramon Ortiz and Mickey Storey.
Ortiz, 39, made one relief appearance for Toronto on this year. He has compiled a 2-0 record and 2.18 ERA in four games (three starts) with in triple-A. The righty has posted a 86-84 with a 4.93 ERA in 297 career appearances, including 214 starts. Barring any other roster moves (and you never know with Alex Anthopoulos’ roster of musical chairs), I expect Ortiz to get a temporary shot in the rotation at least until Josh Johnson is back – the Jays expect him back towards the end of May.
Storey posted a 3.93 ERA in seven relief appearances in triple-A. The 26-year-old righty had a 3.86 ERA in 30.1 innings as a rookie with the Astros last season. With J.A. Happ only going 1.1 innings two nights ago due to an early exit after being hit by a line drive in the head (thank goodness he appears to not have any serious injuries) and Romero’s 0.1 innings of work last night, the Jays need some fresh arms in the ‘pen.
Romero is a mystery. Will he ever be effective again? He simply does not have the ability to consistently throw strikes. It’s mind boggling. Who knew that Ortiz would be the better option? I would have never of guessed it, but it certainly looks that way now.
With both Johnson and Happ out, expect to see another move. Assuming Ortiz gets a start, the Jays are still one short in their rotation.
Southpaw Aaron Laffey has elected free agency in lieu of an outright minor league assignment from the Blue Jays. The 28-year-old has been designated for assignment by the Mets and Jays this month, appearing in five big league games.
Laffey is now eligible to be signed by any team. However, you have to wonder who is going to sign him since he had to clear waivers for the Jays to even offer the minor league assignment. Nobody wanted him off the waiver wire.
Not a huge loss, but I prefer Laffey to Ramon Ortiz or Justin Germano as a 6th or 7th starter in the organization.
In case anyone was wondering, Ramon Ortiz has cleared waivers (as expected) and has been outrighted to triple-A following the additional of Aaron Laffey.
The 40-year-old righty only made one appearance for the Blue Jays this year and is more of a depth player at this point in his career.